AN IRAQ WAR VETERAN passes the offering plate after listening to a sermon on Christian persecution in the early church—tales of torture and execution. A 19-year-old student—home for the summer from college, where her first experience at a fraternity party turned violent—listens to her childhood pastor recite the story of David and Bathsheba and David’s subsequent path to redemption. A mother placates her two children with Cheerios and raisins as she struggles through the exhortations to spousal submission, hiding bruised arms under long sleeves in the middle of July.
The Christian story is littered with trauma—from slavery (the Israelites in Egypt) to sexual assault and abuse (Dinah, Tamar, Bathsheba) to the trauma of war (see: much of the Old Testament) to, of course, the crucifixion of Jesus and martyrdom of his disciples.
There is possibly no better resource for understanding the implications of and need for healing from trauma than faith communities pointing to the cross and Jesus’ answer to violence. Both the need and the opportunity are great. But perhaps too often Christians proclaim the message of Easter—victory and restoration—while skipping past the violence and trauma of Good Friday. Some theologies explain away that violence as a necessary component of ultimate salvation—but let’s get to the salvation part, okay?—leaving survivors of trauma who fill our Sunday pews without a touchstone for healing within the very communities that purport to be safe spaces.
When Staff Sgt. Brandon Hill came home from his third tour in Iraq last year, he expected his wife and young daughters at the welcoming ceremony. What he didn't expect were the pastors, secretaries and members of their Assemblies of God church to be there, too.
“It was awesome -- the fact that they would give up their time to come see us back,” said Hill, who is stationed at Fort Sill, an Army installation in Lawton, Okla. “It really shows that they really care.”
As Veterans Day approaches, denominational leaders and chaplains with years of military service are calling on more churches to find ways to minister to the men and women who have recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Chaplain Keith Ethridge, director of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Chaplain Center, said about 1 million military members have returned to civilian life -- with some continuing in Guard or Reserve forces -- after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.
While some churches, especially those near military installations, might advertise themselves as being “military friendly,” Ethridge and other leaders are trying to expand that universe to other American congregations.
“What we try to do is encourage, in general, a supportive atmosphere,” said Ethridge, whose center is in Hampton, Va. “We want our clergy and our churches at large to be aware of how they can make referrals when they have friends or loved ones in need of support.”
In recent years, the VA has ramped up training, including in rural areas, for clergy to learn more about veterans’ issues and how they can refer former military members facing physical and spiritual health challenges. It held eight training events for rural clergy in 2012, and more are planned for 2013.
As part of his new work as a chaplaincy executive with the Southern Baptist Convention, retired Army Chief of Chaplains Douglas Carver is urging congregations to be places where veterans can turn as they make the transition home.
Carver knows the challenges firsthand: “I retired a year ago, and one of the hardest things for me to do is to transition back to a community.”
During my last year of college, my pastor lent me the book Living Gently in a Violent World, co-authored by Jean Vanier and Stanley Hauerwas. This book is an exploration on how followers of Christ ought to live in broken world.
The introduction of the book recounts the story of Jean Vanier teaching a course on pastoral care. During one class, Vanier asked the students to share some of their spiritual experiences. One of the students, Angela (who was deaf) began to share a dream she had where she met Jesus in heaven. She recalled talking with Jesus for some time and never experiencing so much joy and peace. "Jesus was everything I had hoped he would be," she said, "And his signing was amazing!" Vanier explains to the reader that "for Angela, heaven's perfection did not involve being 'healed' of her deafness. Rather, it was a place where the social, relational, and communication barriers that restricted her life in the present no longer existed."